America's New Brainpower Cities


Brainpower rankings usually identify the usual suspects: college towns like Boston, Washington, D.C.,  and the San Francisco Bay area. And to be sure, these places generally have the highest per capita education levels. However, it’s worthwhile to look at the metro areas that are gaining college graduates most rapidly; this is an indicator of momentum that is likely to carry over into the future.

To determine where college graduates are settling, demographer Wendell Cox analyzed the change in the number of holders of bachelor’s degrees and above between 2007 and 2012 in the 51 metropolitan statistical areas with over a million people (all saw gains). For the most part, the fastest-growing brain hubs are in the South and Intermountain West (which excludes the states on the Pacific Coast). Some of these places are usually not associated with the highest levels of academic achievement, and for the most, they still lag the national average in college graduation rates.

But times are changing, and educated people are increasingly heading to these metro areas, notably in the South, were job growth has been robust and the cost of living is far lower than in the San Francisco Bay Area, New York or Los Angeles. This includes New Orleans, which ties for first place on our list with San Antonio. The New Orleans metro area’s population of college graduates grew by 44,000 from 2007 to 2012, a 20.3% increase, nearly double the national average of 10.9%. (The percentage of college grads in the U.S. stood at 19.4% in 2012, up from 18% in 2007.)

New Orleans’ story, of course, is unique; the jump certainly is partly due to the return of evacuees to the city after Katrina, and some scoff that the region is destined to return to its historical pattern of exporting its educated young. But right now the American Community Survey data seems to indicate otherwise, as does the decision in recent years by numerous technology, videogame and media businesses to establish operations in the metro area, including General Electric, Paris-based Gameloft and the satellite communications company Globalstar, which in 2010 moved its headquarters from Silicon Valley to Covington, a prosperous suburb of the Crescent City.

What is happening in New Orleans, where I have worked as a consultant, is unique, but it also follows a broader pattern that we see in other areas. Unable to afford to settle long-term in traditional “brain centers,” educated people are increasingly looking for places that have strong economies but also many of the cultural and natural amenities associated with the traditional meccas for the educated. With housing prices that are half to a third of Silicon Valley or San Francisco, New Orleans offered educated workers, particularly younger ones, many of the things they look for, but at an affordable cost.

“For $65,000 a year in San Francisco you get a shared apartment and no car,” says long-time New Orleans tech entrepreneur Chris Reed. ”Here, you get great restaurants and clubs, and you get to have a car and your own nice apartment. It’s a no-brainer.”

Other cities with some of the same characteristics are also winning in the race to bring in more educated workers. Nowhere is this more true than in Texas, which is home to four of the top 12 metro areas on our list. Tops is co-first place San Antonio, which had a net gain of 76,000 college-educated people since 2007, or 20.3%.

Like New Orleans, the San Antonio area has traditionally lagged behind in attracting educated people; nearly one resident in six does not have a high school diploma. But the old Texas town also has many amenities that appeal to educated workers, notably great food and a good nightlife scene. In addition, it boasts one of the fastest-growing regional economies in the country, with expanding tech and energy businesses, something that may have a particular appeal in this still weak recovery.

“When the buzz starts … and hipsters start to get wise to the neighborhood assets that are here, once the hipsters get wind of it – you’ll have to beat them away with a stick,” says economic geographer Jim Russell.

Austin places third, which should come as no surprise — the area is home to the main campus of the University of Texas, boasts a thriving music scene and a strong technology infrastructure. Nor should the rapid growth of educated residents in sixth-ranked Houston, up 16% since 2007, which also enjoys low costs, an increasingly attractive cultural scene and one of the fastest growing hubs of dense urban living in the country. Dallas, also a fast-growing area, lands in 12th place on our list, boosting its college graduate population by 13%, or 175,000.

One of the more surprising metro areas in our top 10 is fifth place Louisville, Ky.-Ind. The home of Humana, it has a thriving health care sector, and also is strong in the food industry and logistics. It has seen a 16.2% increase in the number of educated residents.

Strong growth has also occurred in the Intermountain West, led by Denver (seventh) and Salt Lake City (eighth). Both areas have been beneficiaries of the migration of people and companies from California. This may also explain the growth of 11th place Phoenix, an area that has made remarkable strides since the disastrous days of the housing bust and is once again attracting migrants in larger numbers than any large metro area outside Texas.

So if these areas are leading the race to capture “talent,” who is lagging behind? Not surprising at the bottom of the list are a series of Rust Belt cities with relatively weak economies, led by last place Detroit, where the number of college-educated residents rose 4.1%. Its followed by Providence,  Cleveland and Cincinnati.

Boston, long styled as the “Athens” of America, ranks 47th on our list. Over the past five years Boston has gained some 98,000 college educated people, an increase of 7.2%, well below the national average. Beantown, of course, can always claim it has the highest “quality” brains but even in terms of percentage gains of people with graduate degrees it ranks only 41st .

The data show the universe of educated people is not becoming more “spiky” as some suggest, but is spreading out. This is true not only in terms of percentage growth, but in absolute numbers. Since 2007, for example, the Houston and Dallas metro areas have added more BAs than San Francisco-Oakland, and nearly twice as many as Boston. As a result, these and other such cities are gaining a critical mass in brainpower not widely recognized in the Eastern-dominated media.

At very least, we can say that the conventional wisdom favoring the traditional “brain” cities seems flawed. There will always be areas with more educated people per capita than others, if for no other reason than historical inertia and lack of migration, particularly among the less educated. But the clear pattern now is for brainpower, like population and jobs, to continue dispersing, largely to the South, the Southeast and the Intermountain West, with ramifications that will be felt in the economy in the decades ahead.

Educational Attainment: BAs & Higher
Corrected (2015-05-07)
Major Metropolitan Area 2007 2012 Change Change % Rank
Atlanta, GA    1,151,723     1,243,122       91,399 7.9% 45
Austin, TX       382,119        477,058       94,939 24.8% 3
Baltimore, MD       589,874        677,837       87,963 14.9% 14
Birmingham, AL       187,094        214,201       27,107 14.5% 17
Boston, MA-NH    1,271,193     1,369,597       98,404 7.7% 47
Buffalo, NY       207,907        231,718       23,811 11.5% 34
Charlotte, NC-SC       348,923        401,116       52,193 15.0% 13
Chicago, IL-IN-WI    1,984,496     2,190,424     205,928 10.4% 40
Cincinnati, OH-KY-IN       393,076        419,714       26,638 6.8% 48
Cleveland, OH       380,479        405,731       25,252 6.6% 49
Columbus, OH       367,811        419,136       51,325 14.0% 20
Dallas-Fort Worth, TX    1,155,069     1,330,312     175,243 15.2% 12
Denver, CO       595,437        708,325     112,888 19.0% 6
Detroit,  MI       786,153        819,347       33,194 4.2% 51
Hartford, CT       276,002        305,100       29,098 10.5% 39
Houston, TX       972,615     1,157,627     185,012 19.0% 6
Indianapolis. IN       333,079        377,189       44,110 13.2% 24
Jacksonville, FL       221,907        258,893       36,986 16.7% 9
Kansas City, MO-KS       410,109        460,391       50,282 12.3% 32
Las Vegas, NV       257,886        293,001       35,115 13.6% 23
Los Angeles, CA    2,458,215     2,720,654     262,439 10.7% 36
Louisville, KY-IN       195,760        233,566       37,806 19.3% 5
Memphis, TN-MS-AR       197,292        222,813       25,521 12.9% 26
Miami, FL    1,058,815     1,186,398     127,583 12.0% 33
Milwaukee,WI       308,214        337,253       29,039 9.4% 42
Minneapolis-St. Paul, MN-WI       774,669        881,581     106,912 13.8% 21
Nashville, TN       287,154        355,630       68,476 23.8% 4
New Orleans. LA       172,965        216,970       44,005 25.4% 1
New York, NY-NJ-PA    4,433,180     4,836,321     403,141 9.1% 43
Oklahoma City, OK       210,720        237,329       26,609 12.6% 28
Orlando, FL       379,636        409,263       29,627 7.8% 46
Philadelphia, PA-NJ-DE-MD    1,204,380     1,377,684     173,304 14.4% 18
Phoenix, AZ       709,284        818,434     109,150 15.4% 11
Pittsburgh, PA       456,717        513,838       57,121 12.5% 30
Portland, OR-WA       479,207        549,825       70,618 14.7% 16
Providence, RI-MA       301,591        320,262       18,671 6.2% 50
Raleigh, NC       278,754        324,318       45,564 16.3% 10
Richmond, VA       244,277        280,650       36,373 14.9% 14
Riverside-San Bernardino, CA       469,381        519,680       50,299 10.7% 36
Rochester, NY       205,014        226,912       21,898 10.7% 36
Sacramento, CA       403,140        435,485       32,345 8.0% 44
Salt Lake City, UT       193,167        229,140       35,973 18.6% 8
San Antonio, TX       300,114        376,445       76,331 25.4% 1
San Diego, CA       631,996        722,819       90,823 14.4% 18
San Francisco-Oakland, CA    1,251,139     1,414,393     163,254 13.0% 25
San Jose, CA       527,167        592,703       65,536 12.4% 31
Seattle, WA       814,902        918,119     103,217 12.7% 27
St. Louis,, MO-IL       521,047        586,547       65,500 12.6% 28
Tampa-St. Petersburg, FL       496,826        544,121       47,295 9.5% 41
Virginia Beach-Norfolk, VA-NC       284,924        317,741       32,817 11.5% 34
Washington, DC-VA-MD-WV    1,658,902     1,885,862     226,960 13.7% 22
Total  34,181,501   38,352,595  4,171,094 12.2%
Outside MMSAs  20,152,010   22,389,927  2,237,917 11.1%
United States  54,333,511   60,742,522  6,409,011 11.8%


Joel Kotkin is executive editor of and Distinguished Presidential Fellow in Urban Futures at Chapman University, and a member of the editorial board of the Orange County Register. He is author of The City: A Global History and The Next Hundred Million: America in 2050. His most recent study, The Rise of Postfamilialism, has been widely discussed and distributed internationally. He lives in Los Angeles, CA.

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America's New Brain power Cities

The per capita education in different areas of the United States of America is not quite same as we think. It varies in different regions and areas; regions like Washington D.C, New York and California are coming under high rate of per capita education system and rest of others are quite differing from these 3 regions. While following this above list present in this article we can calculate the current education system of the United States of America.
Career Coach

Unique Methodology

Generally, when I want to describe growth over time, I divide the delta by the base year's number. Here, it seems like you used the end year (2012) instead. Any reason why?

Providence, RI is screwed

I had no idea that Providence was so weak.

Dave Barnes

Just curious about "BA and higher."

I have a BS, and have always thought that to be superior to a BA. However, I haven't got a statistical analysis to back up my innate prejudice. This article assumes that brain power corresponds to higher education. Therefore, I would assume that you have come to this conclusion after studying the numbers. Can you share a reference?

I once had the CEO of an active handful of Florida-based companies confide in me that he only had a high school diploma, but all of his direct reports had MBAs. He had a big smile on his face when he explained that they worked for him because their analytical skills precluded them from taking the risk of starting their own companies. They had lots of good ideas, but consistently talked themselves out of them as they worked the numbers.

Of course, his story is anecdotal. I really would like to see the correlation between education and attainment.